Fixing school air

13 Investigates found problem in the air in several Indiana classrooms.
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As students and teachers head back to school, state health officials have implemented tougher indoor air quality requirements for Indiana classrooms. The new rules bring immediate changes for schools across the state, and they come on the heels of an Eyewitness News investigation showing serious air quality problems inside hundreds of Indiana schools. 13 Investigates shows you what schools are now required to do, and how it will impact students, teachers and even parents.

13 Investigates found classrooms across Indiana have an invisible problem.

They are filled with high levels of carbon dioxide, which can have a big impact on students.

"Higher levels of carbon dioxide make a person sleepy and it also decreases their learning ability," said David Gettinger, a facilities manager who monitors CO2 levels for Perry Township Schools. "More carbon dioxide means there's not enough oxygen in the classroom and you don't think as straight."

Ron Clark, who conducts school indoor air quality inspections for the state health department, says elevated CO2 levels are one of the most common problems he finds in schools.

"It means they aren't bringing in enough fresh air for students," Clark said. "It would impact their education and their learning level."

For most students and teachers, high levels of CO2 won't make them sick, but it signals a problem with a school's air circulation, and the consequences can be devastating.

Students and teachers suffering

Students with asthma struggle to breathe in classrooms filled with high concentrations of carbon dioxide and often miss many school days as a result.

Poor air quality in schools takes a toll on many teachers, too.

"I go past a school building and I'll think there are people in there and they're having class and they're working. Why aren't I doing that?" asks Arlana Smith.

Smith taught adult education classes for Indianapolis Public Schools for 20 years before taking a medical disability leave three years ago. She says high levels of mold and pesticides tainted her classroom and destroyed her health.

"I've been diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity disorder, asthma, auto immune dysfunction, I have chronic pain, chronic fatigue," explained Smith, who spends much of her week traveling to doctor appointments. "I miss the students. I miss everything about having a normal life."

Smith's story is not unique.

Eyewitness News obtained state indoor air quality inspection reports for schools all over Indiana. They show many schools have elevated levels of bacteria and fungus, even visible mold. And 66% of Indiana schools inspected by the Indiana State Department of Health have too much carbon dioxide.

Even when problems are found, 13 Investigates discovered some schools go years without fixing them.

"We can't require them to fix what we find," Clark told WTHR in January. We make recommendations, but they're not enforceable."

New rules finally here

Indiana lawmakers ordered the state health department to change that two years ago, requiring the agency to establish new rules for school indoor air quality. The rules were supposed to be in place by summer 2010. After WTHR exposed a statewide problem with school indoor air quality earlier this year – highlighting health department delays in implementing tougher air quality standards – ISDH officials finally issued new rules, and they'll impact students and teachers right away.

"I think it's possible there will be more inspections because of the new rules," said Jennifer House, who oversees indoor air quality issues for ISDH. She says the new rules mean state inspectors can now act more quickly to investigate problems.

"Parents or teachers who are concerned about the quality of air don't need to actually fill out a specific complaint. Now if we get word that there could be a problem we can act, go in without someone putting their name to a piece of paper that they're complaining," House said.

Under the new indoor air rules, schools have to take action right now. They are required to:

--Implement a policy to limit vehicle idling when you pick up and drop off your kids at school.

--Implement policies to reduce allergens in classrooms such as air fresheners, chemicals and live animals.

--Implement a policy for routine cleaning of heating and air conditioning equipment, carpeting and furniture within each school.

--Fix all water leaks and mold problems identified inside the school within 48 hours.

--Tell students, teachers and parents exactly who's in charge of air quality within each school building.

"It gives [schools] a basis for what they need to be done to provide the right environment," House said.

Forgotten committee meets

The state health department is also going a step further. After years of delays and inaction, ISDH is reconvening a committee to help schools improve their air quality.

Lawmakers mandated the School Indoor Air Quality Panel in 2003 to help keep kids safe. Earlier this year, 13 Investigates discovered most seats on the committee were vacant and the group hadn't met in almost seven years.

13 Investigates contacted most original appointees of the 12-member panel. Nearly all of them expressed interest in meeting to discuss strategies that would improve air quality in schools, but all said the state health department had not contacted them in years.

"I haven't heard anything," panel appointee Jay Potesta said in March. "I think the health department was the wrong department to put in charge of this. Frankly, they haven't done much and we still have sick schools."

"There's been no communication whatsoever," added Mary Tanis, a teacher in the Lake Central School Corporation who was also appointed to the air quality panel. "For years, I tried e-mailing the governor. I wrote letters to him saying this was really important for schools and I never heard anything. I tried writing letters to the health department and finally I just gave up because it was not a priority."

13 Investigates obtained internal emails from ISDH that suggest state health officials were not eager to convene the committee. An August 2008 e-mail from John Ruyack, who was then serving as the health department's chief of indoor air quality, stated "there are not any issues [for the panel] to discuss," and efforts to implement a new indoor air quality rule for schools was not a high priority. "The rule is apparently on the back burner," he wrote. Ruyack told panel members he would schedule a panel meeting for early 2009, but there are no written documents to show that attempt ever happened.

Three years later -- soon after WTHR's investigation -- the health department officially reconvened the state's indoor air quality panel. The group met in May, although only five panel members attended and five of the panel's twelve seats had not been filled. The governor's office, health department and State Department of Education have yet to fill all of the vacancies left by disillusioned committee members who resigned during the past seven years.

"Really good progress"

Indoor Air Quality Panel members present at the May meeting approved a set of guidelines to help schools assess and improve their indoor air quality. The guidelines are supposed to be sent to all Indiana schools, and the panel is scheduled to meet again this fall.

Efforts of the panel combined with new, tougher air quality rules for schools should help teachers, parents and students breathe a little easier in classrooms all across Indiana.

"We're making some really good progress, but there is still a lot of room for improvement," Tanis said. "There is a lot more Indiana can do."

If you believe there might be an air quality problem inside your child's school, contact the ISDH indoor air quality program at (317) 351-7190. If you file a complaint (written or verbal), health inspectors are now required to conduct an inspection, and they must keep your identity confidential unless you advise them otherwise.

See WTHR's original "What's in the Air" investigation.

EPA Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Program

EPA Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit

Marion County Health Department (also investigates complaints related to school indoor air quality) 317-221-2266

Asthma Alliance of Indianapolis (helps children and families work with schools to develop an asthma action plan) 317-221-2473